Thousands of people swarmed the streets of Harare on Sunday to celebrate Zimbabwe's 30 years of independence from British rule. President Robert Mugabe called for "an end to politically and racially driven violence" in a keynote speech.
AFP - President Robert Mugabe on Sunday issued an unprecedented appeal for an end to politically and racially driven violence in Zimbabwe, as the nation marked 30 years of independence.
"The leadership of the inclusive government urges you to desist from any acts of violence that will cause harm to others and become a blight on our society," the veteran president told a packed football stadium in Harare.
"As Zimbabweans, we need to foster an environment of tolerance and treating each other with dignity and respect irrespective of age, gender, race, ethnicity, tribe, political or religious affiliation."
Mugabe -- at 86 Africa's oldest leader -- has been isolated by the international community which blames him for much of the political turmoil that has wracked the country through its recent history.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the former opposition party that has partnered with Mugabe's ZANU-PF in a fragile power-sharing government, welcomed the speech.
"Those positive statements are half the journey," MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told AFP.
"The other half is going to be action on the implementation to make sure that there is no violence," he said.
But Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the pro-democracy National Constitutional Assembly, accused Mugabe of "posturing".
"He is very good at that," Madhuku told AFP.
"His political culture is well-documented. He uses violence and this statement today cannot be said to be a change of heart. He wants to pretend he is against violence but of course none will believe that."
The National Sports Stadium in Harare was awash with the green, yellow, red, black and white of the Zimbabwean flag, but participants wore normal street clothes after a warning earlier in the week that political gear and party regalia would not be allowed.
Some in the crowd waved placards with messages that read, "Zimbabwe at 30 - back to glory," "We are our own liberators," and "1980 - 2010: In defence of independence, freedom and our heritage".
Mugabe arrived at the stadium to loud cheers and lit an "eternal flame" of independence before delivering his speech.
In a rare public show of unity, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, smiled and shook hands with Mugabe when he arrived. However, he did not participate in the ceremony, leaving centre stage to his partner in a power-sharing arrangement his party has said is unworkable.
Fanuel Chikwakwaire, a jobless 30-year-old from Glen View township, called for a change in leadership after three decades that have seen Mugabe dominate the political landscape.
"On this day I am hoping for change, especially for the president," Chikwakwaire told AFP at Sunday's ceremony. "He is not going to go on and on. The talks must end now so we can vote."
The main event was bookended by an all-night concert on Saturday and a football game between Zimbabwe's two biggest teams on Sunday.
Mugabe, a former guerrilla leader, was hailed as a hero when he led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980 from the white-minority Rhodesian regime.
But Zimbabwe, once considered a regional model of stability, has endured a spectacular economic collapse as Mugabe has retained a stranglehold on the presidency.
Mugabe fell out with his Western allies following land reforms in 2000 that saw militant ZANU-PF members seize land from white commercial farmers, often violently.
The ensuing chaos undermined the agriculture-backed economy, which shrank to half its 1980 size. The Zimbabwean dollar went into free-fall, with spiralling hyperinflation that saw prices double every day.
Western sanctions, including an asset freeze on Mugabe and his circle, were imposed after 2002 elections that observers said were rigged.
An increasingly isolated government expelled foreign journalists, demonised former colonial power Britain and strained an already touchy relationship with the West.
In 2008, the end seemed near for Mugabe as the opposition MDC won a majority in parliament.
But MDC leader Tsvangirai withdrew from the presidential run-off election, citing violence against supporters. Mugabe hung on through months of talks to remain president in a power-sharing deal.
The unity government with Tsvangirai has restored some stability to the economy by ditching the former currency.
But the on-off partnership has also been bogged down in haggling over the allocation of key political posts.
The unity government is supposed to pave the way to fresh elections, but a date for new polls has not been set.
Date created : 2010-04-18